Ethics & Public Policy Center

Atomic Bluff?

Published in World Magazine on August 17, 2017


President Donald Trump’s campaign opponents frequently attacked his character. They said he was unstable and prone to anger. They tried to highlight the purportedly dangerous nature of these traits by pointing to the president’s control of our nuclear arsenal. They asked, “Do you trust Trump with the nuclear codes?” Despite misgivings, Americans ultimately shrugged off those concerns and trusted him with the bomb.

The current North Korea crisis makes these once-hypothetical concerns real. When the U.S. president responds to North Korean provocation with the warning that North Koreans face “fire and fury” if they attack us, the world wonders if that “fury” will fuel nuclear fire. When he follows that statement up with tweets about America’s nuclear arsenal, world leaders begin to think that perhaps the president means what he says.

North Korea’s regular nuclear tests and missile launches have, according to our intelligence agencies, indicated a growing capacity to hit the continental United States with a nuclear bomb. Other presidents have responded to similar but less threatening actions with sanctions and diplomacy. Those efforts have clearly not worked. It’s not unreasonable for the president to think that the establishment’s way hasn’t worked, so something different—and more bellicose—is a better way to deal with the erratic regime in Pyongyang.

He might be right. During the Cold War, elite opinion regularly castigated President Ronald Reagan’s more diplomatic, but no less blunt, talk about the Soviet Union. They said he was increasing the threat of nuclear war by rhetorically confronting the Communists, backing that talk up with a military buildup, and showing the willingness to use that might in strikes against Libya and the invasion of Grenada. Time proved the critics wrong and Reagan right.

Indeed, days after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at least temporarily backed off his threat to bomb the U.S. military base in Guam. The problem comes less with Trump’s talk and more with the implication that he has laid down a red line. Words matter when you are president. Bluffing might work when you are negotiating a real estate deal: Giving an adversary a point you said you would never give matters little in the end when all that’s at stake is money. Bluffing with nuclear weapons is another matter.

Suppose North Korea did respond to Trump’s statement by launching nuclear weapons at Guam. Trump has verbally committed America to a response with the potential to kill millions, and perhaps cause millions of deaths among our allies if North Korea held back enough nuclear weapons to use to retaliate against South Korea and Japan. If backing America costs a country millions of lives, many countries will undoubtedly think it safer outside our nuclear umbrella than under it.

Bluffing would lead to another poor result. President Barack Obama’s failure to carry through on his promise to bomb Syria if it used chemical weapons against its rebellious citizens has encouraged our adversaries to test our resolve around the globe. Failure to enforce one red line inevitably encourages nations to find what the real line is. That always leads to war or endless retreat.

I doubt either North Korea or President Trump will launch the bomb this time. I do think, though, that the result of this conflict will shape the tenor of world affairs for the next few years. And that result will be shaped chiefly by the president’s character.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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